Editor’s Note: This is a lengthy article, but it is so well worth the investment of time to read thoughtfully and prayerfully through these truths.
SOURCE: David Powilson/CCEF
For many years, a quilt has adorned one wall of our living room. The artist took swatches of fabric and cut hundreds of tiny squares and triangles. She created a lattice pattern through which you gaze into a luminous, iridescent garden. I view her quilt as an invitation to pause and catch a glimpse into paradise. The latticework encloses, protects, provides structure, revealing wonders. The garden within creates an impression of color and light, flower and air, life and pleasure.
It gives a small picture of our God’s great work, the brightness of all creation, the brightness of our salvation.
As such, it gives us a picture of sexuality – and of every other luminous thing that becomes darkened and can be redeemed. Sex is one good strand of God’s good work in creation. Sex is one good strand of his good work in salvation. Imagine your sexuality transformed into a garden of delight protected within the lattice. God began to do good work in you, and He is working to complete this. You will flourish in a garden of safety and joy. Wrongs are made right, “and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich). The highest pleasure, the joy that remakes all lesser pleasures innocent, is our pleasure in Christ, the inexpressible gift. He is light. He is lifegiver. In his light, your sexuality transforms into one blossom among all that is good.
I needed a contrasting object lesson, so I stopped in to talk with my auto mechanic. He fished a greasy rag from the trash bin at the back of his garage, and handed it to me. Unnamable filth had soaked through that scrap of fabric. Ground-in, oily dirt. If your hands are clean, you don’t really feel like touching such a sordid rag. If you must handle such an object, you pick it up by one corner between thumb and forefinger, holding it out away from you at arm’s length. The filthy rag gives us a second, all-too-familiar picture of sexuality. Sex soaks up dark, dirty stains. We must deal with such ground-in evils if we are to fix what’s wrong with us and with others. We understand why Jude evokes an unpleasant sense of wariness even amid his call to generous-hearted love: “On some show mercy mixed with fear – hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (Jude 23).
You can hardly bear to put a name on what some people do, or on what happens to some people. Is your sexuality misshapen and misdirected? Sexual evils are among the dark things that pour forth from within our hearts. Jesus bluntly indicts a roster of sexual wrongs (Mark 7:21-23) – and offers costly mercy to the repentant. Has your sexuality been harmed by others? Some people experience terrible sufferings at the hands of predators, users, misusers, and abusers. Jesus fiercely curses those who trip up others (Matthew 18:6-7) – and offers safe refuge to sufferers.
On the one hand, sex becomes a complex darkness. On the other hand, sex becomes a garden of simple, pure delights. Which picture represents you?
It’s not really a fair question! You probably can’t answer either-or, because most likely you’re somewhere in the middle, aren’t you? That’s important. This article is about making new, about the long restoring of joys to the broken and dirtied. In other words, it’s about the process of change. It’s about moving along a trajectory away from the dark and towards the light. It’s about knowing where you’re heading while you’re still somewhere in the middle.
Are you tilted more towards darkness? Of course, some human beings aren’t in the middle, but live utterly mired within sexual darkness. They even call “good” what God calls “evil.” But they’re not likely to have kept reading this far, because they want to feel justified in wrong, not to be remade right. They want more of what they already have. But if you have read this far, that very persevering has been because light, however far away it seems, is drawing you. There is no darkness so deep that it is immune to light. Perhaps you’ve been wronged sexually, and have lived a nightmare of fear and hurt. But you long for light. Such longing is a blossom of light pulling you in the direction of more light. Or, perhaps you’ve been wrong sexually, and have lived in a fantasyland of lewd, nude, and crude. But you feel sick and tired, dirty and ashamed. Such honest guilt is a blossom of honesty. It pushes you somewhere towards the middle. Your sins delight you less and less; they afflict you more and more. Kyrie, eleison; Lord, have mercy, You whose mercies are new every morning. When you know you need help, then you’re already moving in the middle, not stuck in filth.
Are you tilted more towards light? One man did live utterly as that garden of light shining through the lattice. Jesus did no sin. Yet He chose to enter our deepest darkness. He bore your stains, and did so without becoming stained. He is able to sympathize with your particular weakness and struggles, because He has entered your plight, facing the temptations of sin and suffering. He is able to help you in your failure and your vulnerability to future failure, because He remains unstained. He does not hold you at arm’s length. Jesus is willing to deal gently and truthfully, however ignorant and wayward we are. He is bringing us back to the paradise of light. Perhaps you have come far along this good path already. You have been given much light sexually. Much of the garden of faithful pleasures already flourishes in you. Much latticework of loving restraints is set in place. O hopeful joy, so much has already been purified! Gloria in excelsis Deo; glory to God in the highest. But I know, and you know, that oily stains and cracked slats remain in the fabric of every person’s life. We must still run the race of renewal.
A contemporary hymn contains this line, “In all I do, I honor You.” When I sing that hymn, I always think, “Well, Iwant to honor You in all I do, but I don’t.” The line is truest as a statement of honest intention, but often false as a statement of achievement. We want the garden, but grime still clings to us and oozes from us. Augustine put his struggle starkly: “As I prayed to you for the gift of chastity I had even pleaded, ‘Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.’ I was afraid that you might hear me immediately and heal me forthwith of the morbid lust which I was more anxious to satisfy than to snuff out.”i We want the latticework to protect us, but dark creatures slip into or out of our hearts. When talking about something as important and troublesome as sex, it is important to affirm that the desire for light is the beginning of the emergence of light in our lives.
One theme runs through this article: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). What does that lifelong process look like? How do you get from here to there? How does dirt transform into beauty? What’s the battle like? You’re somewhere in the middle, but Christ has begun a good work in you. He has washed away true guilt. He has broken your willing bondage. Jesus knows his business well. He is looking out for you. He is working to clear away sin’s rot. Jesus is remaking you into a person who actually loves people, and who begins to consider their best interests. Your opinions and impulses no longer reign. What He has begun, He will complete. On the final day, He will entirely remove the instincts and energies of sin from you. How does the war work out? We will look at seven aspects.
1. Bring light to ALL that darkens sex
You fight on many fronts. There are many kinds of evil, more than you might imagine. Some are obvious, some not so obvious. So what are you up against?
a. Unholy pleasure
The most obvious forms of sexual darkness involve the sins of overt immorality. There are countless ways that sexuality veers into extramarital eroticism. Sex can become like living in a Carnival of intoxicating fires, a dreamworld of erotic arousal, predatory instinct, manipulative intention, and the pursuit of carnal knowledge. In a nutshell, in each of the many forms of wrong, a person copulates with the wrong object of desire. Sexual love flourishes as a loving intimacy between one husband and wife. But desire is easily distorted and action misdirected. Such miscopulation can occur either in reality or in fantasy. These are the typical, red-letter, on-the-marquee sins. So what do the weeds of adultery, fornication, homosexuality, pornography, rape, bestiality, voyeurism, incest, pedophilia, fetishism, sado-masochism, transvestitism, prostitution, and bigamy-polygamy have in common? You copulate, in person or in your imagination, with the wrong object of desire.ii Others become objects of unholy desire. These fantasies and interpersonal transactions are the obvious ways in which human sexuality is misdirected into overt sins.
Historically, the behaviors mentioned have usually been evaluated and stigmatized as socially shameful. They have often been named as criminal acts in legal codes. To the degree that cultural values and laws mirror the call of love for others, rather than endorsing lust, they express the way that God sizes up human sexuality. Of course, when mores and laws change for the worse, such behaviors may even be reinterpreted as good, right, and sweet, rather than evil, wrong, and bitter (Isaiah 5:20f). But God teaches us to see things for what they are.
The bold-print sins point in the direction of the fine-print versions of the same sins. Many varieties of flirtation, self-display, foreplay, and entertainment don’t necessarily “go all the way” to orgasm: dressing to attract and tease the lust of others, looking voyeuristically, suggestive remarks, crude humor, erotic kissing, petting, and the like. All these intend in the direction of immoral copulation, whether they consummate their intention or not. Such behaviors (whether occurring in daily life or portrayed on film or page) cross the line of love. Whether or not our cultural context views such things as acceptable, or even as entertaining, they are evils. Love considers the true welfare of others in the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.
Jesus Christ comes to those who have pursued unholy pleasures. He who hates the gamut of perversities listed in previous paragraphs, is not ashamed to love sinners. He does not weary in the task of rewiring sexuality into a servant of love. He is not only willing to forgive those who turn; he takes the initiative to forgive, and to turn us, and to give us countless reasons to turn. He says, “You need mercy and help in your time of need. Come to me. Turn from evils, and turn to mercies that are new every morning. Flee what is wrong. Seek help. Everyone who seeks finds. Fight with yourself. Don’t justify things that God names as evil. Don’t despair when you find evils within yourself. The only unforgivable sin is the impenitence that justifies sin and opposes the purifying mercies of God in Christ. Come to me, and I will begin to teach you how to love.”
Our culture thinks that any consenting object of desire is fair game for copulation. Individual will is the supreme value. But Christ thinks differently, and He gets last say. He backs up His point of view with a promise of clear-eyed, unavoidable reckoning: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Eph. 5:6). He backs up His point of view with a promise of hard-won mercies and with power to patiently change you so that you learn to love Him supremely. Each of the perversities makes sex too important (and makes the maker, evaluator, and redeemer of sex irrelevant). Sex becomes your identity, your right, your fulfillment, your need. That is nonsense. Each ends up degrading sex, as a mere urge that must find an outlet. That, too, is nonsense. Whether exalted or degraded, sex ends up disappointing, self-destructive, and mutually-destructive.
Jesus brings sanity and good sense. He starts by making sex of secondary importance. Sex is a real, but secondary, good. God neither overvalues nor degrades the good things He has made. By realigning who youmost love (away from yourself and distorted pleasures), He makes all secondary loves, including sexuality, flourish in their proper place. That might mean containing sexual expression during a long season, even a lifetime, of purposeful celibacy as a single adult. Jesus himself lived this way. It might mean a season of frequent sexual expression within loving marriage. That’s the most common calling. It might mean short or long seasons of again containing sexual expression because of the different kinds of celibacy that arise in the course of marital life: e.g., advanced pregnancy and post-partum; forced separation for business or military reasons; a chosen fast from sexual expression because of more pressing needs; the diminution of sexual arousal with advancing age; consequences of prostate surgery or other illnesses; the loss of your spouse if you are widowed. Whether by containment or by expression, our sexuality can be remade into love.
When we think about the forms of “sexual brokenness” that need to be made new, it is natural that we think first of the obvious sins. But other evils also begrime us as sexual beings. These also lie within the scope of redeeming love.
b. Unholy pain
Many people experience pain and fear attached to sexual victimization. Have you ever been attacked or betrayed sexually? Sex becomes like life in Auschwitz, like a burn survivor, a waking nightmare of hurt, fear, and helplessness from the hands of tormentors. Jesus’ kindness redeems both sinners and sufferers. He rights all wrongs. Jesus is merciful to people who do wrong (forgiving and changing you). He is merciful to people who are done wrong (comforting and changing you). When you are used, misused, and abused, sex grows dark. If you are or were a victim of sexual aggression, if you were violated, betrayed, or threatened by the sins of others, then sex often becomes ambivalent or fearful.
The erotic is meant to be a bright expression of mutual loving kindness. Sex thrives in a context of commitment, safety, trust, affection, giving, closeness, intimacy, generosity. The erotic flourishes as one normal, everyday expression of genuine love within marriage. A man and woman are “naked and unashamed” with each other and under God. They give mutual pleasure. Sex with your spouse can be simple self-giving, freely given and freely received. Your sexual interactions can express honesty, laughter, play, prayer, and ecstasy. Sex can be open before the eyes of God, approved in your own conscience, and approved in the eyes of family and friends who care for you.
But sex can become very distasteful. Pawing, seduction, bullying, predation, attack, betrayal, and abandonment are among the many ways that sex becomes stained by sufferings at the hands of others. When you’ve been treated like an object, the mere thought of the act can become filled with tense torment. Sexual darkness is not always lust; sometimes it is fear, pain, haunting memories. If immoral fantasies bring one poison into sex, then nightmarish memories infiltrate a different poison. The arena for trusting friendship can become a prison of mistrust. The experience of violation can leave the victim self-labeled as “damaged goods.” Sex becomes intrinsically dirty, shameful, dangerous. Even in marriage, it can become an unpleasant duty, a necessary evil, not the delightful convergence of duty and desire.
If such things happened to you, you might well feel hatred, terror, and disgust. You might feel guilt, shame, and self-reproach over what someone else did to you. Your thoughts of sex might be filled with loathing and despair, the furthest thing from lustful desire. This, too, is a rag soaked in the grease of nameless dirt. To those for whom sexual experience has resulted in unholy pain, Christ says, “I understand well your experience. Psalm 10 captures the outcry of a victim of predators. I hear the cry of the needy, afflicted, and broken. Come to Me. I am your refuge. I am safe. I will remake what is broken. I will give you reason to trust, and then to love. I will remake your joy.” With reason, two-thirds of the Psalms engage the experience of those who suffer violence, violation, and threat. These sufferings found their point of reference in the God who hears you now, who is your refuge, your hope, who is willing to hear your anguish and loneliness, who overflows with comforts. The reference point makes all the difference. God cares, and will patiently repair what has been torn.
In different ways, both violator and violated are stained with the filth of a fallen world. In different ways, Jesus Christ washes both. And there’s still other dirt on the shop floor, and other fresh mercies.
The activity of doing sin is different from the repercussion of feeling guilt. Temptation arises as internal desire and external allure culminate into action. Then, if the conscience is not seared, comes the typical aftermath: guilt, shame, regret, remorse, resolves to change, penance, self-reproach, despair, making up, concealment, and so forth. The “carrot” draws us into one sort of darkness; the “stick” pounds us into a different darkness. Obsession with erotic pleasure yields to obsession with moral failure. Grace addresses both in different ways, because both are part of the dynamic of sexual evils.
Are you haunted by your sins, in the eyes of God, in the eyes of your conscience, and in the eyes of others who might find out? The sin may have just occurred a few minutes ago; it may be a distant but potent memory. Perhaps you don’t actively participate in that sin anymore. You’ve come far, and no longer feel any allure to a lifestyle you once avidly pursued. Or perhaps you just did it again. But the memory – whether fresh-minted or ancient history – fills you with dismay. Perhaps immediate and long-term consequences of your sin run far beyond the repercussions within your conscience: an abortion, STD, inability to bear children, ongoing vulnerability to certain kinds of temptations, a bad reputation, ruined relationships, wasted time, failed responsibilities. Nobody did this to you; you did it to yourself and to others. The same sense of dirty distaste haunts your sexuality as haunts those who were victimized. You victimized yourself (and others you betrayed). You, too, feel like damaged goods. Sex is not bright, iridescent, cheerful, generous, matter-of-fact. It is not a flat-out good to be enjoyed with your spouse or saved should you ever marry. You might live with such guilty feelings in your singleness. You might have brought them into your marriage. Perhaps you are afraid of relationships, because you know from bitter experience that you can’t be trusted. Perhaps it’s hard to shake off the train of bleak associations that attach to sexual feelings and acts.
We often underestimate just how radically biblical faith relies on grace. Grace means that what makes things right comes to you from the outside. It’s the sheer gift that someone else gives to you. You don’t get it by jumping through certain religious hoops. You are forgiven, accepted, saved from death outside of yourself andbecause of Another. Listen to how a man of faith dealt forthrightly with his former sins. The italics highlight how much your hope amid real guilt lies outside of you:
Remember, O LORD, Your compassion and Your lovingkindnesses,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.
According to Your lovingkindness remember me,
for Your goodness’ sake, O LORD.…
For Your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my iniquity for it is great.
– Psalm 25:6f, 11
David’s sexual sin was high-handed. It tore his conscience (Ps. 51; cf. Pss. 32, 38). It brought immediate and long-lasting consequences (2 Sam. 12:10-12, 14). Yet David was truly forgiven (2 Sam 12:13). He experienced the joy of repentance, and the wisdom, clarity, and purposeful energy that real repentance brings (those same psalms, and the rest of 2 Sam. 12). Notice: David radically appeals to the quality of “Your mercy, O LORD.” David’s own conscience remembers only too well, but he appeals to what someone else will choose to remember: “When God looks at me, will He remember my sin, or His own mercies?”
Sin itself turns you in on yourself, blinding you to God. Guilt also tends to turn you in on yourself. Self-laceration exalts your opinion of yourself as supremely important; shame exalts the opinion of other people. But living repentance and living faith turn outward to the one whose opinion most matters. What God chooses to “remember” about you will prove decisive. Your conscience, if well-tuned, is secondary and dependent on the stance He takes. If the Lord is merciful, then mercy has final say. It is beyond our comprehension that God acts mercifully for His sake, because of what He is like. Wrap your heart around this, and the typical aftermath of sin will never be the same. You will stand in joy and gratitude, not grovel in shame. You’ll be able to get back about the business of life with fresh resolve, not just with good intentions and some flimsy New Year’s resolutions to do better next time. This is our hope. This is our deepest need. This is our Lord’s essential, foundational gift. You know people who need to know this. They typically mishandle the aftermath of sin with further forms of the God-lessness that also manufactured sin. You, too, need to know how faith in Christ’s mercy decenters you off of yourself and recenters you onto the living God’s promise and character. The one with whom we have to do freely offers mercy and grace to help us by the lovingkindness of the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:13-16).
d. Don’t view sexual sin as just a male problem
When the church talks about “struggles with sexual lust,” the implicit assumptions are often far too narrow. As we have seen, our teaching, love, illustrations, and applications must not only mention the obvious behavioral sins. We also must touch the ways people brood over sexual suffering and over sexual guilt. In the same way, teaching too often only assumes and targets the struggles of men. Seductive women (“out there”) may be viewed as sources of temptation to men (provocative clothing; participation in making pornography; the temptress at work; the prostitute working in the sex industry). But women often slip under the radar of “struggles with lust.” Unvarnished erotic lust is seen as a typically male problem: e.g., the familiar line, “95% of men struggle with lust…, and the other 5% are lying.” But what about 100% of women in here? There are core similarities between men and women, along with some typical differences.
For starters, the Bible is candid that “there is no temptation that is not common to all” (1 Cor. 10:13). This doesn’t mean temptations always take exactly the same form, but there are underlying similarities. By God’s creation, men and women are primarily the same (human). By His creation and providence, we are secondarily different (male-female differences tied to biology, masculine-feminine differences tied to culture). Add it up, and we struggle with the same kind of thing, but may struggle in different kinds of ways. That does not mean that a female is not perfectly capable of the same unvarnished, immoral eroticism that characterizes some males. It takes two to tango in any act of adultery or fornication. The woman may well be the initiator/aggressor in sending out sexual signals or in arranging a liaison. Women have roving eyes and get hooked on erotic pleasures. Women masturbate. Women adopt a homosexual lifestyle. A woman can pattern her identity around fulfilling sexual self-interest and having a magnetic effect on male sexual interest. When she finds mercy in Christ and starts her journey towards the garden of light, her struggle may directly parallel the struggle of a man who has similarly patterned his lifestyle around immoralities. Both must learn how to love, rather than how to fulfill and arouse lust.
Second, it’s noticeable that female sexuality in America has taken on cruder forms in recent years (or, at least, is far more willing to be brazen). Open lewdness and frank immorality have replaced coy, suggestive hints of availability. Male or female, if you want it, go for it. For example, female athletes increasingly do the openly obscene behaviors that were once the prerogative of male athletes: gutter humor, mooning, streaking, sexualized hazing and initiation rites, predatory sexual acts, an atmospheric grossness. Using obscene language, attending a strip show, and surfing pornographic websites are not exclusively male sins. Women’s magazines (e.g., Cosmopolitan, and the like) have increasingly become sex manuals for how to have wildly ecstatic sex with your “partner” of choice. Marital status is an optional, irrelevant category. But Jesus Christ is “no respecter of persons”: a coarse female is as ugly as a coarse male. Jesus loathes the degradation of sex (Ephesians 5:3-8a). His self-sacrificing mercy works to transform sex into an expression of love, light, and fruitfulness (Eph. 5:1f, 8b-10) for females and males alike.
Third, there are some typical and noteworthy differences between men and women. Both strugglers and those who minister to them should be aware of variations on the common themes. At the level of motive, for example, male sexual sin and female sexual sin often operate in somewhat different ways. An old joke plays off the difference between simple and complex eroticisms:
Question: What is the difference between men and women?
Answer: A woman wants one man to meet her every need, while a man wants every woman to meet his one need.
Men are often more wired to visual cues, to anonymous “body parts” eroticism. Women are often more wired to feelings of personal intimacy and emotional closeness as cues for sexual arousal. These aren’t absolute differences (notice the ‘oftens’). They are bell curves that slide one way or the other. But being aware of the tendencies can be helpful. The motives driving adultery, fornication, and promiscuity may follow somewhat different patterns.
Homosexuality provides a particularly obvious example. Lesbianism typically presents a different picture from male homosexuality. Many lesbians were once actively, unambivalently heterosexual, whether promiscuous or faithfully married. They might have conceived, borne and raised children without much questioning of their sexual identity. But over time the men in their life proved disappointing, violent, drunken, uncomprehending, or unfaithful. Perhaps during the unhappiness of a slow marital disintegration, or while picking up the wreckage after a divorce, other women proved to be far more understanding and sympathetic friends. Emotional intimacy and communication opened a new door. Sexual repatterning as a lesbian came later, often the result of a slow process of experimentation that followed emotional closeness. The life-reshaping “lusts of the flesh” were not initially sexual. Instead, cravings to be treated tenderly and sympathetically – to be known, understood, loved, and accepted – played first violin, and sex per se played viola. Often the core dynamic in lesbianism is intimacy lust running out of control. In male homosexuality, the core dynamic is often sexual lust running out of control. (Again, notice the ‘often’. I’ve known male homosexuals where desires for acceptance or for power played first violin). What the Bible terms ‘lusts of the flesh’ include many different kinds of desires that run amok, hijacking the human heart.
It’s no surprise, then, that lesbians tend to form more stable relationships, and tend to be less promiscuous than male homosexuals. It’s no surprise that homosexualist ideology rarely attempts to make the argument that female homosexuality is genetic, though it often attempts that argument for men. Raw, obsessive sexuality seems to invite biological rationalizations in a way that a more multi-factored relationship doesn’t. Many homosexuals, both male and female, make comments along the following lines: “Why bother with the whole male-female thing? It’s easier to be gay! If men just want sex, let them score with each other. If women want to be known, understood, and loved, let them build relationships with each other. You can avoid the whole hassle of trying to bridge the male-female divide in relationships. It’s easier to get what you want with the same sex. And you can have simpler friendships with the opposite sex, too, when you take the sex thing off the table.”
Fourth, the culture of romance novels, soap operas, and women’s magazines does not draw nearly as much attention as male-oriented pornography. Men do graphic pornography. That’s an obvious problem. Women do romance. It’s the same kind of problem, though the participants keep their clothes on a while longer, and there’s more of a story to tell before they tumble into bed. Romance novels are female pornography. The sin comes wired through intimacy lust first, and builds towards erotic lust. The formulaic fantasies offer narrative emotion-candy, not visual eye-candy. Romance tells a story about someone with a name, someone you fall in love with. It builds slowly. It’s more than a moment of instant gratification with anonymous, naked, willing bodies. But like male pornography, there is a progression from soft-core (e.g., Harlequin series), to more openly erotic (e.g., Silhouette series), to frankly pornographic writings that target women. The male model Fabio made his career posing for the formulaic book cover art. A big, strong guy, stripped to the waist, tenderly cradles a beautiful woman. He’s the knight in shining armor, protective, gentle, understanding – and the handsome hunk of beefcake. The romantic novel genre has even made a crossover to evangelical Christian publishing houses. The sex is cleaned up; the knight in shining armor is also a deep spiritual leader who marries you before sleeping with you. But the fantasy appeal to intimacy and romance lusts remains as the inner engine that allures readers.
Female versions of sexual-romantic sin are shop-floor rags as much as male versions. Jesus Christ calls all of us out of fantasy, delusion, and lust, whether the fantasyland is filled with naked bodies or with romantic knights. Jesus Christ is about the reality business. Francis of Assisi got things straight: “Grant that I would not so much seek to be loved as to love.” Jesus teaches us how to be committed, patient, kind, protective, able to make peace, keeping no record of wrongs, merciful, forgiving, generous, and all the other hard, wonderful characteristics of grace. He teaches us to consider the true interests of others. He teaches us a positive, loving purity that protects the purity of others. Instead of our instinctual ways – narcissism, fascination with our own desires and opinions, self-indulgence – Jesus Christ takes us by the hand to lead us in ways that make vive la difference shine brightly.
e. Sexual struggles within marriage
We mislead ourselves and others if we say or imply that just getting married solves all the problems of sexual sin, sexual pain, sexual confusion. All sorts of remnant sins can carry on in marriage. All sorts of remnant heartaches and fears can still play out. “Making all things new” continues to remake sex within marriage. Here are some examples.
- One person may need to learn that sex is good, not dirty. You can relax rather than tense up. You can give yourself freely, rather than worry about what will happen to you. Pleasure will not betray you. Your spouse is faithful and can be trusted. (Only larger, deeper, fundamental trust in God can free us to grant simple trust and generous love to another human being, who will in fact let us down and do us wrong in some ways.)
- Another person may need to learn that sexual bliss is not the summum bonum of human life. You still need to say No to lust. There are seasons and reasons for self-denial and temporary celibacy. Your spouse may struggle, in sex as in other areas, and you will need to learn that “love is patient” comes first for a reason.
- Some people may need to learn whole new patterns of sexual arousal. Willing nymphomania, copulatory gymnastics, and oral sex may have turned on your fantasies and fornications. But your spouse, God’s gift to you, may enjoy quiet, tender moments being held in your arms. The Richter Scale of raw ecstasies may have spiked higher in your past immoralities than in your marriage. But you need to learn that the scale of solid joys and lasting treasures proves incomparably deeper and more satisfying.
- Still other marriages may need to give up evil relational patterns: game-playing, manipulation, give to get, avoidance, bartering sex for other goodies, sulking. Even high-stakes criminal sins – sadistic sexual aggression, violence, and rape – can occur in marriage.
- Still other people must sever the link that equated sex with “success or failure,” with “performance” and “identity.” As Christ redefines and recenters your identity, he changes what sex means. Sex can become a simple and meaningful way to give. It can become a simple pleasure, as normal as eating breakfast. It can become a safe place where failures and struggles can be talked about and prayed through.
- Some marriages may deal with impotence and frigidity (‘erectile dysfunction’ and ‘arousal disorder’ in the medicalizing jargon of our times). On the male side, Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra present a purely chemical solution for symptoms. The problem sometimes has a significant biological component unrelated to normal aging. But most often there are significant links to spiritual issues: performance anxiety, an unwillingness to face the diminishments of aging, the separation of sex from love, guilt over premarital sex, or unreal expectations of potency that have been learned from the media, pornography, or fornication.
- Still others may face temptations to make comparisons with previous partners, or with fantasy partners, or with some idealized fantasy of what marital bliss should be like. Wise sex loves your husband or wife.
- Still others will continue to struggle with familiar patterns of lust. They may be tempted to flirt, or to cheat, or to view pornography, or to masturbate in the shower, or to fantasize about past experiences.
- Finally, every person will struggle with garden variety anger, anxiety, grumbling, selfishness, unbelief, and the weight of life’s difficulties. The everyday non-sexual sins and troubles don’t disappear! Other sins and hardships can clutter the bedroom with non-sexual troubles that greatly affect sexual intimacy. Christ’s ongoing mercies will remake your sexuality in part by remaking worry and irritability (and the rest) that arise in response to life’s pressures.
You get the picture! He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. His redemption will touch every form of grease. We can’t do justice to “sexual brokenness” or bring mercy unless we get the whole problem on the table. Jesus works with us. And it is our joy that He works with far more than just the Technicolor sexual immoralities.
2. It’s a LONGER war
One key to fighting well is to lengthen your view of the battles. If you think that one week of “shock and awe” combat will win this war, you’re bound for disappointment. If you’re looking for some quick fix, an easy answer, a one-and-done solution, then you’ll never really understand the nature of the honest fight. And if you promise easy, once-for-all victories to others, then you’ll never be much help to other strugglers.
The day of “completion” will not arrive until the Day that Jesus Christ arrives (Phil. 1:6). When we see Him, then we will be like Him perfectly (1 Jo. 3:2). The wiping away of all tears, the taking away of every reason for sorrow, crying, and pain, will not come until God lives visibly in our midst (Rev. 21:3-4). Someday, not today, all things will be made new (Rev. 21:5). Much of the failure to fight well, pastor well, counsel well, arises because we don’t really understand and work well with this long truth. Consider two specific implications. First, sanctification is a direction you are heading. Second, repentance is a lifestyle you are living.
a. Sanctification is a direction
Too often our practical view of sanctification, discipleship, and counseling takes the short view. If you memorize and call to mind one special Bible verse, will it clean up all the mess? Will prayer drive all the darkness away? Will remembering that you are a child of God, justified by faith, shield your heart against every evil? Will careful self-discipline and a plan to live constructively eliminate all failure? Is it enough to sit under good preaching and have daily devotions? Is honest accountability to others the decisive key to walking in purity? These are all very good things. But none of them guarantees that three weeks from now, or three years, or thirty years, you will not struggle to learn how to love rather than lust. We must have a vision for a long process (life-long), with a glorious end (the Day), that is actually going somewhere (today). Put those three together in the right way, and you have a practical theology that’s good to go and good for the going.
Look at church history. Look at denominations. Look at local churches. Look at people groups. Look at families. Look at individuals. Look at all the people in the Bible. They all have a history and keep making history. Things are never finished. No one ever says, “I’ve made it. No more forks in the road. No more places I might stumble and fall flat. No more hard, daily choices to make.” Look at yourself. Life never operates on cruise control. The living God seems content to work in His church and in people groups on a scale of generations and centuries. The living God seems content to work in individuals (you, me, the person you are trying to help) on a scale of decades, throughout a whole lifetime. At every step, there’s some crucial watershed issue. What will you choose? Who will you love and serve? There’s always something that the Vinedresser is pruning, some difficult lesson that the Father is teaching the children He loves (John 15; Heb. 12). It’s no accident that “God is love” and “love is patient” fit together seamlessly. God takes His time with us.
In your sanctification journey and in your ministry to others, you must operate on a scale that can envision a lifetime, even while communicating the urgency of today’s significant choice. ‘Disciple’ is the most common New Testament term describing God’s people. A disciple is simply a life-long learner of wisdom, living in relationship to a wise master. The second most common term, ‘son/child/daughter’, contains the same purpose: by living in life-long relationship to a loving Father, we learn how to love. When you think in terms of the moral absolutes, it’s EITHER oily rag OR garden of delights. But when you think in terms of the change process, it’s FROM oily rag TO garden of delights. We are each and all on a trajectory from what we are to what we will be. The moral absolutes rightly orient us on the road map. But the process heads out on the actual long, long journey in the right direction. The key to getting a long view of sanctification is to understand direction. What matters most is not the distance you’ve covered. It’s not the speed you’re going. It’s not how long you’ve been a Christian. It’s the direction you’re heading.
Do you remember any high school math? “A man drives the 300 miles from Boston to Philadelphia. He goes 60 mph for 2 hours, 40 mph for 3 hours, and then sits in traffic for 1 hour not moving. If traffic lightens up, and he can drive the rest of the way at 30 mph, how many hours will the whole trip take?” If you know the formula, “distance equals rate times time,” you can figure it out (8 hours!). Is sanctification like that, a calculation of how far and how fast for how long? Not really. The key question in sanctification is whether you’re even heading in the direction of Philadelphia. If you’re heading north towards Montreal, you can go 75 mph for as long as you want; you’ll never, ever get to Philadelphia. And if you’re simply sitting outside Boston, and have no idea which direction you’re supposed to go, you’ll never get anywhere. But if you’re heading in the right direction, you can go 10 mph or 60 mph; you can get stuck in traffic and sit awhile; you can get out and walk; you can crawl on your hands and knees; you can even get temporarily turned around. But at some point you’ll get where you need to go.
The rate of sanctification is completely variable. We cannot predict how it will go. Some people, during some seasons of life, leap and bound like gazelles. Let’s say you’ve been living in flagrant sexual sins. You turn from sin to Christ; the open sins disappear. No more fornication: sleeping with your girlfriend or boyfriend. No more exhibitionism: flashing in your trenchcoat or wearing that particularly revealing blouse. No more pornography: buying Penthouse or the latest salacious romance novel. Ever. It sometimes happens like that. For other people (and the same people, at another season of life) sanctification is a steady, measured walk. You learn truth. You learn to serve others constructively. You build new disciplines. You learn basic life wisdom. You learn who God is, who you are, how life works. You learn to worship, to pray, to give time, money, and caring. And you grow steadily – wonder of wonders! Other people (and same people, another season) trudge. It’s hard going. You limp. You don’t seem to get very far very fast. But if you’re trudging in the right direction – high praises to the Lord of glory! One day, you will see Him face to face, and you will be like Him. Some people crawl on their hands and knees. Progress is painful. Praise God for the glory of His grace, you are inching in the right direction. And then there are times you aren’t even moving, stuck in gridlock, broken down – but you’re still facing in the right direction. That’s Psalm 88, the “basement” of the Psalms. This man feels dark despair – but it’s despair in the Lord’s direction. In other words, it’s still faith, even when faith feels so discouraged you can only say, “You are my only hope. Help. Where are You?” That counts – it made it into the Bible. There are times you might fall asleep in the blizzard and lie down comatose and forgetful – but grace wakes you up, reminds you, and gets you moving again. There are times you slowly wander off in the wrong direction, beguiled by some false promise, or disappointed by a true promise that you falsely understood. But He who began a good work in you awakens you from your sleepwalk, sooner or later, and puts you back on the path. And then there are times you revolt, and do a face-plant in the muck, a swan dive into the abyss – but grace picks you up and washes you off again, and turns you back. Slowly you get the point. Perhaps then you leap and bound, or walk steadily, or trudge, or crawl, or face with greater hope in the right direction.
We love gazelles. Graceful leaps make for a great testimony to God’s wonderworking power. And we like steady and predictable. It seems to vindicate our efforts at making the Christian life work in a businesslike manner. But, in fact, there’s no formula, no secret, no technique, no program, and no truth that guarantees the speed, distance, or time frame. On the day you die, you’ll still be somewhere in the middle, but further along. When we lengthen the battle, we realize that our business is the direction. God manages to work His wonderworking glory in and through all of the above scenarios! God’s people need to know that, so someone else’s story doesn’t set the bar in a place that is not how your story of Christ’s grace is working out in real life.
b. Repentance is a lifestyle
What was the first trumpet call of the Reformation?
It was not the authority of Scripture, foundational as that is. Scripture is the very voice, face, and revelation of God. A Person presses through the pages. You learn how He thinks. How He acts. Who He is. What He’s up to. But Scripture alone did not stand first in line.
It was not justification by faith, crucial as that is. We are oily-rag people. Christ is the garden of light. We are saved by His doing, His dying, His goodness. We are saved from ourselves outside of ourselves. No religious hocus-pocus. No climbing up a ladder of good works, or religious knowledge, or mystical experience. He came down, full of grace and truth, Word made flesh, Lamb of God. We receive. That’s crucial. But faith alone wasn’t actually where it all started.
It was not the priesthood of all believers, revolutionary as that is. Imagine, there aren’t two classes of people, the religious people who do holy things by a special call from God, and the masses of laity toiling in the slums of secular reality. The “man of God” is not doing God’s show before an audience of bystanders. We all assemble as God’s people, doing the work and worship together, with differing gifts. The one Lord, our common King and attentive audience, powerfully enables faith and love. Yes and amen, but this radical revision of church didn’t come first.
The trumpet call, Thesis Number One of Luther’s 95 Theses, was this: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” That dismantled all the machinery of religiosity, and called us back to human reality. Luther glimpsed and aimed to recover the essential inner dynamic of the Christian life. It is an ongoing change process. It involves a continual turning motion, turning towards God, and turning away from the riot of other voices, other desires, other loves. We tend to use the word ‘repentance’ in its more narrow sense, for decisive moments of realization, conviction, confession, turning. But Luther uses the word in its wider, more inclusive sense. We live FROM-TO, when we live in Christ. John Calvin put it in a similar way: “This restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year…. In order that believers may reach this goal [the shining image of God], God assigns to them a race of repentance, which they are to run throughout their lives.”iii The entire Christian life (including the more specific moments of repentance) follows a pattern of turning from other things and turning to the Lord.
Luther went on to write a beautiful statement describing the transformation dynamic that occurs as we live FROM-TO.
This life, therefore,
is not righteousness but growth in righteousness,
not health but healing,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.
The process is not yet finished, but it is going on.
This is not the end but it is the road.
All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.iv
Lifelong progressive sanctification was the trumpet call back to biblical faith. It was a call back to this life – including sex – in which the living God is on scene throughout your life. He planned a good work. He began a good work. He continues a good work. He will finish a good work. He has staked His glory on the completion of that work. Lengthening the battle heightens the significance of our Savior for every step along the way. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.
i Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1997, Book VIII, Chapter 17, p. 198.
ii Marriage per se is neither magic nor magically loving. A few of these perversions of sexual goodness can be performed between married parties: e.g., joint use of pornography, sado-masochism, ‘homosexual marriage’, rape, bigamy. But such practices violate the call to loving intimacy before the eyes of God, who created sex good and defines good sex. The sexual identity and desires of one or both parties can be warped, whatever the marital status. The last part of this section will discuss sexual sins that more typically occur within marriage.
iii John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III:iii:9.
iv Martin Luther, “Defense and Explanation of all the Articles,” Second Article.
David Powlison is a faculty member at CCEF and has been counseling for over thirty years.
This article appeared as a chapter in the book Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor, and published in 2005 by Crossway Books.